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Anthrax Spores in Daschle Mailing Confirmed as Weapons Grade Matter

By Ken Fireman
NEWSDAY -- washington

The anthrax used in the bioterror attack on Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office was significantly more sophisticated and dangerous than that sent in an earlier assault on a news media office, two government officials said Thursday.

The disclosure came as new cases of anthrax exposure surfaced in Washington and the New York area and fresh contamination sites were discovered on Capitol Hill.

The State Department closed one of its mail handling centers and halted deliveries to its headquarters after a mail worker tested positive for the disease.

New tests performed on anthrax spores sent to Daschle’s office reveal that even though they were the same strain as spores mailed to the New York Post -- the so-called “Ames” strain commonly used for vaccine development and research -- they were purer, finer and more easily dispersed in the air.

The spores had not, however, been genetically altered to resist antibiotics, a technique developed by some nations to render anthrax spores a more formidable biological weapon.

These disclosures by White House Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge and Maj. Gen. John Parker, the commander of the Army’s biological weapons defense lab, appeared to end a weeklong dispute between Ridge and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt on terms highly favorable to Gephardt.

For days Ridge and Gephardt have sparred over the nature of the anthrax sent to Daschle, with Ridge maintaining it was “indistinguishable” from that sent to the media outlets while Gephardt insisted it was more lethal and “weapons-grade.”

Gephardt strongly implied that Ridge was understating the nature of the problem, and congressional aides speaking on condition of anonymity said administration officials had spoken candidly about the potency of the anthrax in private while pulling their punches in public to avoid creating alarm.

But Ridge strongly denied Thursday that he had been misleading in his earlier comments as he retreated from them, even accepting Gephardt’s terminology.

“Based on these latest lab reports, it is clear that the terrorists responsible for these attacks intended to use this anthrax as a weapon,” he said.

Ridge said his earlier statement that all the samples were indistinguishable was based on a DNA analysis revealing all came from the same “strain” or family.

Nonetheless, Ridge’s belated acknowledgement of the greater potency of the anthrax aimed at Daschle is unlikely to enhance the government’s credibility at a time when its handling of the spreading anthrax problem is already attracting criticism.